Editorial Pet Peeves #2: Have You Finished Yet?

I receive a lot of manuscripts that the author tells me he or she’s finished with. This is usually a very loose translation of one or more of the following:

1. I’ve written around 75,000 words and that seems to be about a good length for a book, so I must be done, right?

2. I feel a whole lot better having gotten all that off my chest, and if I feel good the manuscript must be good, so I thought I’d send it to you.

3. I can’t be bothered to work on it anymore, and you’re meant to be a writer/editor. You’ll fix it for me, won’t you?

4. I really have no idea what I’m doing, but if you work with me over the next several months and agree to read every one of my fifteen drafts, I’m sure it’ll be a bestseller.

5. I know there’s a book in here somewhere. Can you help me find it?

Here are my responses:

1. No, you’re not done. The number of words is no proof of the coherence or persuasiveness of your argument, or how appropriately you’ve marshaled and presented your data, or the accuracy and cogency of your writing. I would prefer 37,500 well-honed words than double the number of loose ones.

2. What you’ve got there, my relieved friend, is the necessary first draft—the part of writing where you get everything out and down. Now you have to edit, edit, edit to make sure that all that emotion and catharsis doesn’t crowd out the reader. It’s good that you’ve got this far, but you’ve got plenty of work to do.

3. Well, tough luck. Writing is hard; it should be hard. If you pay me enough money I might do your work for you. But if you don’t want to work, then why should I? Roll up your sleeves and pull down the shades, your dark nights have only just begun.

4. Sorry. It doesn’t work like that. We editors can fix some problems, but we just don’t have the time, the energy, or (frankly) the inclination to help you to say something. Of course, as with response #3, if you pay us enough money, we might consider it. But, really: figure out what it is you want to say before wasting your and my time by just throwing words around like confetti!

5. No. You built the haystack; you find the needle.

If in doubt as to the readiness or suitability of your book for publication, edit it until you find nothing to change, give it to trusted third parties for their honest feedback, and make their changes. Then put the manuscript away in a draw for a month or two, pull it out and read it again, and then edit it until you find nothing to change. Then it’s probably ready for submission.

About martinrowe

I am the executive director of the Culture & Animals Foundation, the co-founder of Lantern Publishing & Media, and the author, editor, and ghostwriter of several works of fiction and non-fiction. I live in Brooklyn, New York.
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